Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
I had heard nothing but good things about Who Fears Death. Nnedi Okorafor has been on my radar for what seems like forever, even before I was blown away by her short story, “When Scarabs Multiply”, collected in So Long Been Dreaming. The setting was fresh and innovative—a post-apocalyptic and magical Africa—and tight, something I find occasionally lacking in short stories as a medium. I could barely keep myself from tearing through She-Wolves to get to Who Fears Death. But my luck with not over-hyping myself has run out, and I feel a little guilty in admitting that Who Fears Death underwhelmed me.
Who Fears Death is the story of Onyesonwu, the young but powerful Ewu sorceress, as told to a sympathetic ear in the two days before she dies—a death she already knows intimately. The product of rape in a world where the light-skinned Nuru, who have always oppressed the dark-skinned Okeke, are moving closer and closer towards trying to exterminate them, Onyesonwu is destined to be the one that changes the world by confronting the genocidal’s movement leader—her biological father. But her patriarchal culture can’t quite accept her as the Chosen One, and Onyesonwu sets out with a few friends and her lover, Mwita, to face her father herself.
The world Okorafor has built here is fascinating. Like “When Scarabs Multiply”, Who Fears Death is set in a post-apocalyptic and magical Africa. (Incidentally, there seems to be a little overlap between this world and that of Zahrah the Windseeker.) As Onyesonwu marches towards a magical encounter with her father, she and her friends rely on a solar-powered GPS to find their way. Computers are available, although not in widespread use—one of the most horrifying set pieces takes place in a cave filled with abandoned computers and corpses. There’s references to a Great Book, composed after the apocalypse to blame it on the Okeke and rationalize the Nuru’s violence towards them. The magic system isn’t explained, but it doesn’t need to be—still, I’m quite taken with the idea that a magician’s initiation is to face their own deaths. This is a gritty, dark world; Okorafor discusses rape, murder, paranoia, female genital circumcision, and Onyesonwu’s struggle being visibly a child of rape (Ewu children have peculiar coloring) and a female magician in a world where few women are accepted into those ranks. It can be quite graphic—the rape that produced Onyesonwu is presented three different times—but it’s part of this world and, unfortunately, also part of ours.
Unfortunately, the story itself is lacking. The traditional Hero’s Journey is a classic story, perfect for works where the focus is more on the setting and the character development than the story—we all basically know how it’s going to go. But Okorafor manages to trip it up by slowing it down painfully and then, suddenly, speeding it up just as painfully. Onyesonwu starts her story with an anecdote about her adopted father’s funeral and then goes back to the very beginning; a circular structure I don’t like, but it sets up the culture, albeit at a meandering pace, and gets her into her training. Her training takes a scant fifty pages before she and her friends head off to face her destiny, a journey that takes one hundred and eighty pages for a thirty page climax with a disappointing final battle. It’s full of little episodes and characters that slow down Onyesonwu’s story and add absolutely nothing to it. Okorafor also doesn’t establish things she needs to establish for pay-off later. For instance, the first part, her childhood, deals with her struggle to get Aro, a very sexist magician, to take her on as an apprentice. Onyesonwu rails against him constantly, but he’s introduced much too late for us to hate him, too—he just pops up when Onyesonwu needs to rail against him and what he represents. It’s a little mechanical, very jarring, and happens throughout the novel; Onyesonwu calls her lover, Mwita, a liar when he hasn’t lied and the continuity’s shaky. Worse, random chapters from other characters’ point of view are dropped in at the end with no warning at all. It’s quite a shame.
I expected to enjoy Onyesonwu as a character, I really did. I love prickly heroines, but reading Who Fears Death made me realize something—the prickly heroines I love have soft, gooey centers that they’re trying desperately to protect (and occasionally end up destroying on their own). While I appreciate Onyesonwu as a character brimming with rage, she’s just not very sympathetic, snapping at everyone she encounters. Immensely capable, yes; interesting, to a degree. But she doesn’t change over the course of the novel; even waiting for her death sentence, she’s still the same angry girl she was born to be. The other characters aren’t particularly memorable, saving Onyesonwu’s sympathetic and interesting mother, whose own powers are glossed over in favor of her daughter’s.
There’s more I could say about Who Fears Death—the way the traveling section devolves into teenagers squabbling over sex dotted by episodes that don’t add much to the plot, the way Onyesonwu’s finishing blow in the final fight (though mercifully established) grossed me out, and the occasional punctuation errors and continuity errors (chapters just stop having titles halfway through)—but I won’t. I wanted to like this, I really did. But it just didn’t work.
Bottom line: The gritty and dark Who Fears Death boasts a fascinating setting—post-apocalyptic and magical Africa—but its stumbles start with the story and go from there. The pacing infuriatingly drags out the transitioning action and zips by the actual action, and the main character isn’t sympathetic at all. A miss.
I rented this book from the public library.